Shifting Into (Electric) Gear

Steve Elder was born in New Zealand and lived there until he moved to sunny Los Angeles in the 1970s, eventually finding his way north to greater Vancouver, which he now calls home. However, summers spent vacationing at Christina Lake with his family is something that always brings back good memories for Steve.

Perhaps that is why three years ago, Steve purchased the old Mercury shop truck that spent many years parked beside the workshop at the Christina Lake Service Station. As a car enthusiast and career mechanic, he has big aspirations for the truck: Steve dreams that one day he might be able to electrify the 1954 pickup. It’s an ambitious undertaking, yet perhaps he is on to something much bigger.

Aside from retrofitting old vehicles to support new technologies, for Steve, who is now an instructor with the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby, the most exciting news in electric vehicles has to be the number of manufacturers who have committed to developing new models to replace traditional gas vehicles. Steve, whose love for cars led him to become a certified mechanic in 1974, thinks that by 2035 there will no longer be any internal combustion vehicles on production lines. Every new vehicle in production will be electric.

 

COMPANIES LIKE TESLA HAVE MADE ELECTRIC COOL.

There are other manufacturers who are turning out electric vehicles that prospective buyers should be keeping their eye on as well.

“Technology is progressing in leaps and bounds; every day there is a new discovery, and the price of these technologies just keep coming down. We are at a tipping point, and eventually it will be cheaper to build an electric vehicle than it is to build an internal gas combustion vehicle,” according to Steve.

The 1954 Mercury shop truck that locals might recognize from the Christina Lake Service Station. So far Steve has replaced the brakes, refreshed the electrical system, and repaired the engine to make it a running vehicle again.
As demand for electric vehicles increases, more manufacturers are seeing the benefit of having an array of options for drivers, and as our options increase, costs go down.

One of the biggest challenges to the transition to electric vehicles is that across the province, not enough mechanics have the proper training to work on these new technologies. This is why the City of Vancouver approached BCIT to create a program that would give people the opportunity to learn how to work on these vehicles safely.

Steve, who has been working on electric vehicles since 2012, was the natural choice to spearhead this program. So in 2019, he helped design a pilot project to support emerging technologies in the automotive industry. That year BCIT launched AUTO 4011: Battery Vehicle Technology and Service, a 30 hour training course that is offered to fully-certified Automotive Service Technicians (AST) and registered 3rd or 4th year AST apprentices. The department wanted to create a course that was accessible, so they opted for a mixture of online self-directed learning and hands on training. The course takes just over a week to complete, which is manageable for most mechanics who are worried about the time they would have to invest in upgrading this particular skill.

Steve Elder in the shop at BCIT, working on a high voltage (270 V D.C.) battery pack removed from a 2018 Kia Niro.
Steve sees this course as an asset for mechanics who want to upgrade their skills and knowledge by learning how to work safely on high voltage vehicles.

These types of programs are also a huge benefit to people in small communities, like Alison and Mark Morrison from Trail, BC, who struggle to find mechanics trained to work on their electric vehicle.

Although Alison and Mark have found themselves driving less frequently over the past year because of the pandemic and travel restrictions, that doesn’t mean their Tesla hasn’t been hitting the road.

“We considered getting an electric car for six months, going back and forth between buying an electric vehicle or going with a hybrid,” Alison recalls.

For the past year, they have been the proud owner of a 2016 Tesla Model S (all-wheel drive, of course).

A very happy Mark Morrison on the day they picked up their Tesla.
The couple confess that they didn’t purchase their electric vehicle the conventional way—for Alison and Mark, buying their Tesla was as easy as one simple click.

The pair opted to skip the dealership, purchasing their Tesla online instead. All they had to do was choose a location and hit search on a website dedicated to selling used Teslas and just like that, it generated a list of pre-loved vehicles; every night the price of the cars would go down, almost like an auction.

“You can get quite a good deal buying used. We saved around $40,000,” Alison says.

Although the couple admits that it was kind of like buying a used vehicle for the price of most new gas vehicles, they consider this purchase a good financial investment and an investment in their family.

 

ELECTRIC VEHICLES JUST MAKE SENSE FOR SOME FAMILIES

Alison and Mark have two teenagers who are just coming into driving age; in fact, their older son, Noel, probably drives their Tesla more than both Mark and Alison combined, so buying a safe and reliable vehicle was important for their family.

“You want to put your kids in the safest car you can. I think it has made our son a more responsible driver, plus, he never has to worry about putting gas in the car,” Alison jokes.

Their Tesla boasts a lot of great safety features that put them at ease when their son is out driving around town. For instance, every time you pass a speed sign, the car gives you a friendly reminder to drive the limit; there is adaptive cruise control which automatically adjusts the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from other cars on the road; and the car even pre-calculates your battery life by the end of the trip. Driving an electric vehicle has made Alison more aware of the way she drives.

“It doesn’t take the driving experience away; it does make driving much simpler. The safety features let you focus on driving,” Mark says.

Even in a Kootenay winter, the Morrisons take their Tesla up to Red Mountain every chance they get.

Both Alison and Mark are pleasantly surprised how well their Tesla handles winter driving conditions. Alison has noticed that she has a lot more control over the vehicle, “you aren’t slamming on the brake to slow down,” rather, you just let your foot off the pedal, she says.

Alison is most impressed by the regenerative braking which recharges the battery as you drive.

Unlike gas vehicles, which require you to brake, in an electric vehicle, as you take your foot off the throttle you decelerate because the motor stops supplying power to the wheels, slowing the car down. At the same time, the car is still in drive, acting like a generator capturing kinetic energy from the wheels as they slow. That energy is then converted into electricity and stored for later use.

“It’s an interesting technology,” she says, “it is a different feeling, although you do get used to it.”

While innovations in electric vehicle technologies keep improving, Alison and Mark have experienced some challenges. Their Tesla does have a few little quirks; their parking brake has gotten stuck a few times, and it was a bit of a challenge to find someone who was able to change their tires. However, other than these small complaints, they have been pretty happy with the switch.

Even though electric vehicles require less maintenance overall, Alison and Mark know that eventually they will need to have their Tesla serviced, and right now options are pretty limited.

“It is hard to find someone who can work on electric vehicles here,” and Mark says that might be a challenge in the future.

Charging stations across the province help the Morrisons get to where they need to go using their electric vehicle. These photos were taken in the Okanagan the first year that they owned the vehicle and could still travel.
As a mechanic himself, Steve Elder understands why fellow mechanics may be intimidated by the high voltage of electric cars; however, he hopes that more training programs can give them the confidence to work on these types of vehicles, especially as they make their way into the interior.

“It is a great opportunity for mechanics who are thinking that they might be missing out on business by not having this specific training,” he adds.

Steve is optimistic about the future of renewable energy. At the same time, he acknowledges that there are challenges to renewables; these technologies aren’t perfect.

 

BATTERY TECHNOLOGY KEEPS IMPROVING

Currently, electric vehicles use lithium batteries and there is a lot of bad press right now about their potential environmental impacts. However, these batteries can be recycled, and new technologies such as solid state batteries are starting to emerge that contain no liquid. There are a lot of innovations occurring in renewables, and the science is only getting better.

In Trail, there are already two battery recycling plants including KC Recycling and Retriev Technologies, making Trail a leader in this type of recycling technology. KC Recycling, which has been in operation since 1977, has grown to become the largest lead-acid battery recycler in western Canada as well as the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

According to their website, for over 25 years, Retriev has also been a global leader in battery recycling and management. Retriev has the technology to recycle the lithium batteries found in electric and hybrid vehicles. As consumers shift to more renewable energies, the demand for proper recycling of different types of batteries increases. In Trail, there is already infrastructure to deal with this new demand.

“It will be nice when there is even more infrastructure,” Alison says.

The Tesla’s navigation system updates just like a phone or computer as new technology is introduced.

Trail already has two charging stations at the arena—there is one free charger and one high-speed charger that you have to pay for. There are super chargers going into Castlegar, Osoyoos, and Hope; with a supercharger, you can get a full charge in twenty minutes, which is pretty exciting for Alison and Mark who are looking forward to being able to drive to the coast again, once the pandemic is over.

It takes about an hour for the Morrisons to charge their vehicle fully, and Mark estimates that they are spending roughly one hundred dollars a month on electricity for their vehicle; compare that to the nearly four hundred dollars a month they were spending on gas, and Alison and Mark are noticing the savings. With a yearly savings of close to $3,600, they can invest in more important things, like sports equipment for their growing children and family vacations once it is safe to travel again.

For the Morrison’s, having an electric vehicle works well for their Kootenay lifestyle, especially as infrastructure improves.

Hearing stories about neighbours successfully transitioning to electric, especially in our rural communities, will hopefully make it easier for people to see themselves being able to make the same change, and Alison and Mark are always ready to give their friends and family a little test drive.

“If you are debating whether to switch to electric, just go for it, don’t be afraid.” Alison promises that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Looking forward, Alison and Mark are having fun imagining the future of transportation, and while they still have one gas vehicle for when their Tesla is in use, in five years, they foresee owning only electric vehicles.

Alison is excited for the possibilities for more options, especially more truck options. Recently, she had her eye on the new RIT, an all electric pickup truck from the new American start-up brand Rivian that will be competing with Tesla’s Cybertruck and the GMC Hummer Electric Sport Utility Vehicle. These new vehicles are expected to be in production within the next year according to Car and Driver magazine which has been covering the changing automotive industry since the 1960s.

 

RENEWABLE ENERGIES CREATE NEW JOB OPPORTUNITIES

Steve in Lyon, France, where he attended the Global Electric Vehicle Conference.

As a car enthusiast, and long-time mechanic, Steve understands why some mechanics might have concerns about the transition to renewable transportation. He says electric vehicles are much easier to work on (once you get comfortable working with electricity that is).

An internal combustion engine has upwards of 2,000 working parts; electric vehicles have about 20. There is always that fear that jobs will become obsolete as technologies advance, yet Steve sees this as an opportunity for new jobs to be created.

We need skilled workers who are trained to work on electric vehicles; we need people who are able to install infrastructure such as charging stations, and that infrastructure will need to be serviced and maintained. It isn’t about a loss of jobs, rather a shift in the type of skills workers will need.

Steve will always have a love and appreciation for cars and mechanics. The automotive industry is what first brought him to North America. After a long and exciting career in this industry, he has seen many changes, and he is hopeful that we can always bring a little of the past into our futures.

 

This article, by Sarah Beauchamp, first appeared in Living Here Magazine.